- By John HudsonJohn Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013.
It’s Congress’s most solemn duty — and scores of lawmakers don’t want anything to do with it.
On Tuesday night, President Obama postponed a Congressional vote to authorize a U.S. military strike in Syria, preventing well over 100 undecided lawmakers in the House and Senate from having to declare a position publicly in the next two weeks. For scores of Republicans and Democrats troubled by the optics of voting yea or nay, the delay was a godsend.
"Everyone’s happy there’s no vote," a senior GOP Congressional aide told The Cable. "Republicans were being bombarded by constituents who were largely uneducated on Syria. If the president couldn’t even articulate a clear rationale for the strikes, how were they supposed to?"
For Democrats, the incentive to stay quiet was even stronger.
"There were a lot of Democrats who didn’t come out opposed to the strike because they didn’t want to throw the president under the bus," a senior Democratic aide told The Cable. "It’s that notion of having a political duty."
That tension — faced by Republicans and Democrats — created a bloated demographic of undecided lawmakers who were ultimately rewarded for their silence. According to The Washington Post, more than 150 representatives in the House remained undecided ahead of Tuesday’s decision. In the Senate, more than 35 senators remained undecided. With the war vote delayed indefinitely, they can now navigate the politics of intervention with much greater freedom — a cautious strategy not all of their colleagues admire.
"What’s the sense of being in Congress to duck issues of war and peace?" Republican Congressman Peter King, who openly backed President Obama’s military strike, told The Cable. "Nothing to me is more important than foreign policy issues that affect life and death. No one builds a legacy on how they voted for a highway bill."
Rep. Adam Kinzinger, one of the few House Republicans to vocally support the Syria strike, said he felt compelled to speak out. "If we had taken this vote, it would’ve been the most important in ten years," he said. "The point I tried to make is if you oppose this on principle, great. But if you oppose this because it’s Barack Obama’s plan, you should really rethink what your job is."
On the Democratic side, Rep. Alan Grayson, an early opponent of the strike, told The Cable that administration officials actively worked to silence anti-war Democrats.
"I’ll tell you, I’ve had classified briefings with members who hadn’t publicly committed but were vehemently opposed to the strike," he said. "The administration asked those members to remain publicly uncommitted and told them that doing that might assist in the United States’ efforts in the region. Some of those members decided to honor that request."
The surprisingly quiet voting blocs in the Democratic Party included the reliably anti-war Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Within those caucuses, war-weary lawmakers suchs as Rep. Jim Clyburn and Rep. G.K. Butterfield remained undecided on the Syria strike. For Republicans, the once-reliable contingent of neoconservative such as Rep. Buck McKeon and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen refused to fall predictably in line with the strike.
For those who played it safe, the strategy paid dividends.
"The easiest thing to do was to keep your powder dry until you absolutely had to make a decision," a Democratic aide told The Cable, "And now those who did were rewarded by their patience."